Russell's Blog

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O'Connor concerned about an American Dictatorship

Posted by Russell on March 10, 2006 at 1:46 p.m.
One of the more curious things about the Republican Party is that it hates the government. Back in the early 1990s, this might have seemed an odd position to take, given the commonly construed purpose of a political party. After all, would you hire a doctor who proudly proclaimed that "I hate sick people?" Or, how about a gardener who told you, "I hate those lousy, miserable plants?" Or a teacher that told you of their loathing of children? Yet, that's exactly what the GOP did, and for some reason, Americans voted for them.

Fast forward to today. The GOP has made good on its tacit promise, which, after all, was never really about "small government." It was about contempt for government. I'm not going to enumerate the ways in which this has manifested itself -- other people have done a much more thorough job of that than I can ever hope to do.

So, when Sandra Day O'Connor warns us about the GOP assault on the Judicial system, it sends cold chills up my spine. To explain why I find this such a frightening idea, let me regale you with my own small experience with the Judicial system. Yes, I know it is trivial compared to the Big Ideas people usually talk about, but stick with me if you can. There is a good reason why I bring this up.

A little more than a year ago, I bought a 1963 VW Bug, which I have named Gunther. Gunther has an original yellow-on-black California license plate that issued when the car was new. A few months after purchasing the car, I received a ticket for a violation of California Vehicle Code section 5200: Display of Plates. "No front plate," read the comment. As far as I know, in 1963, VW did not provide mounting hardware for front plates. Indeed, many cars of that vintage had no front mounting hardware. Was the law requiring a front plate retroactive, or did it only apply to cars after its passage?

I investigated the vehicle code, and as it turns out, the section under which I was cited reads as follows:

  1. When two license plates are issued by the department for use upon a vehicle, they shall be attached to the vehicle for which they were issued, one in the front and the other in the rear.
  2. When only one license plate is issued for use upon a vehicle, it shall be attached to the rear thereof, unless the license plate is issued for use upon a truck tractor, in which case the license plate shall be displayed in accordance with Section 4850.5.
Oh? What about that section (b) there? I wondered. It would seem that this law only requires me to display the plates I was issued (or were issued for the vehicle, anyway, since I wasn't alive at the time). So, how many plates had been issued? When did it become mandatory for the DMV to issue two plates? My questions were answered by section 4850, which became effective January 1, 1987 :
  1. The department, upon registering a vehicle, shall issue to the owner two partially or fully reflectorized license plates or devices for a motor vehicle, other than a motorcycle, and one partially or fully reflectorized license plate or device for all other vehicles required to be registered under this code. The plates or devices shall identify the vehicles for which they are issued for the period of their validity.
  2. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no contract shall be let to any nongovernmental entity for the purchase or securing of reflectorized material for the plates, unless the department has made every reasonable effort to secure qualified bids from as many independent, responsible bidders as possible. No contract shall be let to any nongovernmental entity for the manufacturing of reflectorized safety license plates.
  3. In addition to any other fees specified in this code, a fee of one dollar ($1) for reflectorization shall be paid only by those vehicle owners receiving license plates or devices under this section.
  4. This section does not require vehicle owners with nonreflectorized license plates or devices to replace them with reflectorized plates or devices.
  5. This section shall be known as the Schrade-Belotti Act.
After much scouring, it seems that this is the only statute in the vehicle code that has anything to say about how many plates should be issued. And, as you can see from subsection (d), it is not retroactive. I contested the ticket, and several others that I received. With persistence, I prevailed in adjudication on each one.

Eventually, I received a ticket directly from an officer (the others were basically parking tickets). Oddly enough, the officer was also an owner of an early 1960's bug, but he assured me that both he and I were required to display a front plate. He as unimpressed by my citation of statute, and unimpressed that I had prevailed in adjudication. He was very polite and professional, but nevertheless incorrect. So, I took the case to trial.

At the trial, the judge questioned us both very sharply, and I was expecting him to either ignore the statute, or to refuse to let me read it. However, when I mentioned the two statues I've cited above, he paused, and ordered the bailiff to bring over a massive tome sitting on a nearby piece of battered furniture. He leafed through it, read the statutes, and then read them aloud to the court. He then swiftly concluded that my argument was sound, and reminded the officer that copies of the vehicle code are freely available.

Now, I didn't prevail in all matters that day. Although I won the point about the plates, I lost a point I had argued about a dim tail light, and I was ordered to pay the fine for it. However, it was an eye-opening experience. I've read a fair bit about how the three branches of government are supposed to check one another, and how this is supposed to protect our freedom. However, this seemingly unimportant court case crystallized in my mind what it actually means.

We have an independent judiciary. The judge in my case did not answer to the police, despite his speech before the trial warning, essentially, "Woe unto he who disrespects a police officer in my court!" The judicial branch intervened on my behalf, personally, to check the power of the executive branch. It was only able to do so because it is not part of the executive branch, nor does it take orders from the executive branch. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself could have turned up at my trial to personally vouch for the officer's argument, and the judge would still have had a free hand.

This gives me a new clarity about how our government is supposed to work. In the life of a normal person, one is likely to come into contact with only agents of the executive branch. Most conspicuously, this includes the police, but also the DMV and a constellation of other agencies. Should these agents of the executive ignore or overstep the law (or as in my case, are unaware of its particulars), the courts are our only protection. Indeed, it is trivial little cases like mine, ones that are so unimportant that they aren't even mentioned in tiny type in the murky back pages of the most news-starved weekly circuar, that represent the real heavy lifting of the Judicial System. The checking-and-balancing that our constitution encourages is neither theoretical nor rare. It isn't just the front-page-news cases when the checking and balancing takes place. Judges step in and actively check the power of the executive hundreds, maybe thousands, of times a day on behalf or regular folks like you and me. Without them, our freedoms would amount to little more than some ink splashed on a moldering parchment.

This is what Sandra Day O'Connor is talking about. When the Judiciary checks the Executive, it protects us from the tyranny of a dictator. When it checks the Legislature, it protects us from the tyranny of the Mob. And when I say "protects," I mean it protects you personally. If the courts are undermined, those protections will vanish. Our system of checks and balances is like a daily exchange of artillery fire, with thousands huge salvos of shells wizzing to and fro at all hours. If the guns of the courts are silenced, the battle line will move very quickly. If they do, then you will never again be able to argue with a police officer, except perhaps with his permission.

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